Outdoors: Do you know what you're buying? Understanding pesticide labels

Don't assume a product is safer just because it may be organic. This product says “danger" on the label.

When it comes to buying and using insecticides and herbicides, consumers should know what they’re buying. I think there are a lot of misconceptions about the use and even the term pesticides, so I want to help clear up some of the confusion. I’m not trying to convince you that pesticides are good or bad. I simply want you to be informed.

The first thing you should know is, the term pesticide is inclusive. It refers to insecticides used to control insects, herbicides for controlling weeds, miticides for mites, and fungicides for fungal problems. Pesticides can be organic or inorganic. Organic pesticides are made from naturally occurring elements. Inorganic is made from synthetic materials.

The next thing you should be aware of is, organic doesn’t always mean that it’s a “safer” product than an inorganic product. For example, the product All Down Concentrate is an herbicide that’s made from acetic and citric acids. It sounds safe because it’s organic, right? This is not necessarily true because if you think about it, it’s acid. I know, so is vinegar or lemon juice, so you have to look at the percent of acid that it contains. This is where things get tricky and confusing. Vinegar contains 5 to 8% acetic acid. Some products sold for weed control contain 28% or more acid. This can burn your skin and cause irreversible eye damage.

I guess I’m a pesticide nerd because when I have time to kill I browse the pesticide aisles in the store. If you haven’t tried it, you really should. It’s interesting and eye opening. I don’t expect you to know what all the chemical names are, and you don’t really have to. The thing you should look at is the signal word on the front label of the product. That’s the really small print that’s almost impossible for most of us seasoned people to even see. This will tell you how safe or dangerous the product is, as well as what it contains.

The signal word will say one of the following things; caution, warning, danger or danger-poison. Caution means it is slightly toxic orally, dermally, through inhalation, or can cause a slight eye or skin irritation. Warning means the product is moderately toxic orally, dermally, or through inhalation and could cause moderate eye or skin irritation. Danger is used when the product is corrosive or causes severe eye and skin burning, but not highly toxic orally or through inhalation. Danger-Poison means the product is highly toxic orally, dermally or through inhalation! When the label says danger-poison it also must be accompanied by a skull and crossbones and written in red. I personally don’t see any reason you would ever need to use a product with a danger-poison label. With that said, there is a category of pesticides that contain organic derivatives that don’t have these signal words. Just for fun, take a look under your kitchen or bathroom cabinet and read the signal words on some of the cleaners. It might surprise you.

Did you know that glyphosate (the product most people think of as Round Up) actually has a caution label? The product 2,4 D sold for broadleaf control has a danger signal word. I think most people mistakenly assume 2,4 D is the safer choice. The brand name Round Up now includes several products that are used for many different problems, so be sure to read the label to make sure you’re buying one that is listed for your particular problem.

There will also be a registration number on the label. This number identifies the product. If for some reason your child or pet should ingest the product and you need to call the poison control hotline, knowing this number will speed things up.

You may also see the word OMRI certified on the label. This means the product has been approved by the Organic Materials Review Institute and can be used by organic growers. Once again, don’t assume that it’s a safer product just because it’s OMRI certified. Read the label and understand any precautions that may be noted.

I recommend you use “safer” products first. Then, if they don’t work for some reason, you can take further action. I for one try to avoid “danger” labeled products as much as possible. Which reminds me, the label that you rip off the back when using the product will tell you what precautions you need to take when using the product. It will advise proper clothing to wear when applying the product as well as how to wash your clothes, any dangers to animals, and how long it is advised before you can safely enter an area that was treated.

Do you know that the label of the product is a legal document? As a commercial pesticide applicator, we are repeatedly told, “the label is the law!” Read the label, read the label, read the label!” That means the little foldout attached to the product. I think the bottom line is, use your head when dealing with any product, and if you’re going to err, err on the side of caution.

Linda Corwine McIntosh, Licensed Commercial Pesticide Applicator, ISA Certified Arborist, Advanced Master Gardener

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